Sensuous Saratoga (Cont)

Continued from part 1

More than most other sports, racing has the tendency to segregate its followers by class distinction. This is ironic in a game in which indiscriminate luck routinely makes fools of the moneyed. Saratoga nevertheless has drawn a line in the sand to keep the common folk separated from the privileged, and this line is drawn with grass seed. Just beyond the lush green watered lawn which caresses the feet of the patricians who gather in the fenced-in paddock, picnickers scratch about like plebeians, their necks craned to the face of a television set, their feet planted in the dry soil, its composition loose and dirty like Kitty Litter.

It's a shame that this has come to pass because rubbing shoulders with those who seemed like royalty was what made the saddling areas under the shady trees so memorable. When the New York Racing Association corralled the horses in 1985, the defining soul of Saratoga died. Until then, it was the coming together of horses and owners and the two-dollar bettors that made getting up from your seat to push through the crowds seem worthwhile.

One of my favorite memories is the Whitney Handicap of 1973, in which Onion defeated Secretariat in one of the most stunning upsets in racing history. Fathers everywhere tell their sons that they stood next to Secretariat, like my dad used to tell me he batted against Warren Spahn, or my friends in Chicago would say that they played poker with Michael Jordan. Some images, no matter how fanciful, are so vivid that they take on the weight of reality, and I believe most people simply wish to remember them differently for the pure joy of it.

The truth is that Secretariat was saddled in the infield. For all those on hand, over 30,000 in all, the image of Secretariat's shiny copper coat against the rain-slicked turf course should be etched in the mind with complete clarity, but it is not when it comes to that detail.

Such amnesia reveals the rich imagination of the racing fan, and how much the virtue of hope plays on the soul of an optimist. Creativity is a characteristic of people from the city, and so it is that Saratoga is a haven for New Yorkers.

There is a big difference between the composition of the Saratoga crowd with that of Keeneland, or of Del Mar, the two racetracks with which Saratoga is most often spoken of in the same breath. Similar to Del Mar, Saratoga embraces a vacation mood, and the casual nature of escape reflects itself in the fashion. While it is true that the old wooden clubhouse boxes are filled with people of high standing who dress the part, one need not venture far, perhaps but a few hundred yards to the clubhouse seats or down a flight of stairs to the cloth-covered tables of the terrace, to meet a different mix. Today it is money, and not good manners or pedigree, which is the currency of belonging.

In contrast to Keeneland, where the women wear heels and the men wear their women on their arms, the faithful at Saratoga look like people who have emerged from the subway. They flash logos like B.U.M. on their T-shirts and wear Nikes and tube socks. They speak with an Eastern wit, revealing in their remarks a natural tendency toward complaint. "Ya shudda gone on wid him, Georgie" says a disgruntled fan, waving a finger at Chavez. "Eh, the corned beef tastes like shredded paper."

Amid the rich culture of legend and language, and custom and lore, first-time visitors to Saratoga stand out like mistakes. "What's there to do in Sarasota?" I'm often asked. In response, I drag them from place to place with the vigor of a tour guide, and when they tire of this, I do what all good party planners do; I take them out to eat.

Fifty years after its creation, "nouvelle cuisine" has made its way to Saratoga, but in a form befitting a town where the potato chip was invented. This common man's delicacy was carved from a culled potato in 1853 at Cary Moon's Lake House Restaurant. To this day, there is the argument over who was responsible, whether it was the cook George Crum, who wished to play a trick on a patron, or his colleague, a woman named "Aunt Katie" Weeks, who, in an inspired moment, tasted a tater slice she had dropped in doughnut fat. Ever since, Saratoga has nurtured a fondness for cholesterol.

The streamlined servings of the modern era don't sit well with me, despite the raging popularity of Maestro's and Chianti, nor does the earlier start of the season, now the last week of July, when the tomatoes haven't ripened and the corn isn't fully grown. For a good third of the new racing season, the hand melons aren't quite ready for the cut of your spoon, and the peaches in the cobbler at Ye Olde Wishing Well seem a little crunchy. It's the latter part of August which is truly the time to taste the region's harvest, but we live in a time when now is better than perfect, and the shift to a longer season obscures the loss of quality by providing no comparison.

Saratoga Springs may not seem much different than any other little town, but it is. It doesn't take an artist's eye to see the differences. The poetry of Saratoga is evident in the cloistered mystery of the gardens at the back of the Adelphi, in the gritty oyster taste of the natural springs water, in the bed of brittle pine needles that sit beneath your ball on the golf course, in the pretty bloom of geraniums that line the racetrack's balconies, and in the language of the people who stand in wait for a table at Sperry's, their scattered prose the equivalent of argument, a meaningless jumble of racetrack jargon and hyperbole.

These days, with its social calendar favoring civic ceremonies and gun collector's conventions, street fairs and parades, Saratoga Springs vaguely resembles "our wickedest resort," which is how the journalist Nellie Bly referred to it before the turn of the last century. Yet, it sparkles with a similar energy, displaying a small town rascality that even the likes of Diamond Jim Brady might find beguiling. A colorful spot for drinking, dancing, dining, betting -- Saratoga is a reaffirmation of what made horse racing popular in the first place. Conviviality plays well in Saratoga, where nostalgia hangs over the teeming streets like guilt, and larceny is on the mind of every shopkeeper.

For me, at least, Saratoga might as well be a virtual feast. Here the horse is king, and a symbol of leisure and ease and grace. There are no leafy elms like these back home, even if there are. No mansions the size of those on North Broadway, no polo played in my neighborhood, no tented lawn parties nor second-hand shops where tattered clothes command a premium. Despite four decades of coming here, Saratoga is still a fairyland.

There is no reason for me to go on. I could tell you about the Spuyten Duyvil where I once saw a man do a tap dance on the walls while standing on his hands, or the Villa Balsamo, so deep in the woods that the mosquitoes fed on the scent from its steaks. I have stories about Fourstardave and Mother Goldsmith's and Angel Cordero Jr. But what's the point? Better that you should experience the stories of Saratoga yourself.

This season don't go to Saratoga for the races. Forget about winning a bundle or betting on a longshot. Go there to live your life better. Breathe in the comfort of tradition. See the splendor of summer. Find happiness. And begin to see the world differently.

Victor E. Zast is president of Private Perfumery in Chicago.